At first Kelly Alexander had apprehensions about two, 250-foot wind turbines being put in his neighborhood just south of the Mackinac Bridge.
But, there was a certain momentum for the renewable energy to come to the community.
“My folks even bought every one of us a 12-foot windmill we could put in our yard,” Alexander recalls, of his parents, who are in their late 80s and also live down the street on Trails End Road. “We had those in our yards for a short period of time. The pride quite soon turned to disdain.”
Alexander said he remembers a windy night not long after the turbines were put in place listening to a confusing kind of noise coming from the blades rotating through the air.
“I didn’t know what the heck to call it – white noise? – at first,” Alexander said. “I just knew it was irritating. You could hear it in the house when laying in bed and have this drumming. I’m not going to sit here and say it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because it wasn’t. But, on a windy day you could definitely notice it.”
Not long after, the Emmet County Planning Commission spent more than 12 months developing its wind energy systems ordinance. With this, the county began to the take a hard look at what turbines would be allowed within its boundaries and where they would be allowed to go.
Alexander, who sits on the county planning commission, was part of the wind ordinance development process along with more than a dozen other appointed and elected officials.
When the Emmet County Wind Energy Ordinance was approved in the fall 2009, it both lowered the 55 decibel sound level allowed by the state of Michigan by 20 decibels and capped the height of turbines at 400 feet.
“I’m not anti-wind turbine,” Alexander said. “I’m pro-people and property values. Wind turbines have to be done responsibly.”
Developing wind energy
Enacting a zoning ordinance was the first step for the county to prepare for what could be a gold rush in wind energy development at the tip of the Lower Peninsula.
Michigan pledged to make at least 10 percent of its energy supply from wind by 2015. There are currently about 164 megawatts of wind energy power being produced in Michigan that powers about 40,000 homes, with an additional 21 megawatts added in 2010. Another 2,518 megawatts in wind projects are currently in the planning or developing phase in Michigan, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Exiting Emmet County planning director Brentt Michalek said he feels the 35 decibel level at the property line and 400-foot height restriction will stand in the future for Emmet County, as more and more developers begin to prospect in the county – despite criticism from developers that the restrictions effectively eliminate wind turbines, both utility grade and single-site, smaller models.
But, Michalek contents that under the ordinance, developers simply have to the more careful their planning.
“If you have enough acreage, you can do it,” said Michalek, who will be replaced by assistant director Tammy Doernenburg when he leaves for a new job in Wisconsin soon.
“I think it could work on sites throughout the county,” he said. “I don’t think it is a prohibition or that argument will really work (in court).”
John Sarver, Michigan Wind Working Group chairman and who represents the Great Lakes Renewable Association’s Wind and Health Technical Work Group, helped establish the state standard of 55 decibels at the property line and no specific height restriction. Sarver said height was avoided because it is difficult for government to regulate “visual impact.”
“Not talking for the state, but speaking for myself, 35 decibels is not justified by what we know about the impacts of sound,” Sarver said.
Sarver is not a wind scientist and said his expertise lies in reviewing the research of others.
“When the state came up with their guidelines, they literally used the rationale that a 55 decibel would be OK to not interfere significantly with conversation,” he said. “At that time, I had not seen sufficient data to link wind turbine noise with adverse health effects. Since then, I have looked at the world health organization guidelines (who recommend a 40 decibel annual average). What I have found compelling is that when they get to the 55 decibels they start talking about a significant number of people having adverse impacts – like cardiovascular impacts.”
Sarver acknowledged that some people may be impacted at other lower levels, but his intent was to focus in on the significant impacts reported after 55 decibels.
But, Sarver reiterated that he had not seen enough information about the health risks to say a 35 decibel level was justified.
Bliss Plateau Wind Farm
One the driving factors behind Emmet County’s push to zone for wind energy systems was a handful of prospectors scouting leasable land in the area.
By far the most productive of these companies is Troy, Mich.-based Balance 4 Earth, LLC., which has amassed between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of wind easements in Bliss and Carp Lake Townships during the past two years.
The vision, says Martin Nehls, Balance 4 Earth manager, would be a 1.5-2.5 megawatt utility-scale turbine field called Bliss Plateau Wind Farm. The company plans to build between 15 and 24 turbines, Nehls said.
The company is already working on developing two other wind farms in London, Ontario, Canada, and an undisclosed West Coast location.
But, after the county put its ordinance in place, Nehls said, “basically everything came to a halt (in Emmet County).”
Balance 4 Earth estimates the project to be valued at a $150 million investment and says it could generate as much as $1,000,000 in tax revenues annually.
“One year of those tax revenues has already been lost,” Nehls said.
The Bliss Plateau Wind Farm would be considered a small to medium scale utility wind energy network in comparison to other proposed projects of more than 100 turbines in Michigan.
One of the companies that could sign onto the project in the future is German wind-giant Nordex, which only this year opened its first manufacturing facility in Jonesboro, Ark., for a reported $100 million.
Nordex, based in Nehls’ native town of Hamburg, Germany, specializes in large, utility size, turbines and has erected them in Canada, China and throughout Europe during its 25 years in operation.
When asked if the Bliss Wind project would likely be bought or later taken over by Nordex, Nehls was did not give a specific confirmation.
“We have a non-disclosure,” Nehls said. “But, I will tell you these guys have the option to go with another developer. The technology is brilliant, the track record is brilliant. We have the option to the get them in if we do our homework here.”
Nehls said working to develop a relationship with the residents, such as eating meals with them and going to church, is important not only to the developer, but also the larger company.
“They want to be sure if there is a future issue, they can solve it,” Nehls said. “That is why it is very important to have a local face. It is a complex development and they want to have some locally involved.”
Among the largest of the issues it will face locally is getting Emmet County to rethink its 35 decibel and height restriction policies.
The company has been relatively candid about its operation and intent, voluntarily filing lease agreements with the Emmet County Register of Deeds and showing up to relevant community government meetings to speak with the public.
“We suggested a 45 decibel level in the night-time and a 50 decibel level in the day-time,” Nehls said. “That is still tougher than the state level.”
Under the 35 decibel limit, Balance 4 Earth says its output would be about 25 percent less than its productivity at the state level. Those figures also don’t take into consideration that there may not be technology quiet enough to meet the decibel level at certain property lines, Nehls said.
“If that is not exclusionary zoning, what is?” Nehls asked.
Other hurdles the company sees within the Emmet County wind ordinance is the height restriction of 400 feet.
“At 400 feet we are looking at 10-year-old technology,” Nehls said. “So, the question here again is how can you compete with 10-year-old technology as a county; as a wind farm? We would like to see at least 500 feet, 600 (feet) would be better, but 500 feet would be OK for us.”
Without such changes, Nehls and Balance 4 Earth say the will not invest any more money into the area, which includes a meteorological tower near Cassidy Road in Bliss Township that was previously approved by the county to research the wind levels in the region.
When asked if the company will continue to work with county offices to revamp the ordinance, abandon the project or take legal action, Nehls said he is keeping all options open.
“We have basically stopped investing if there is no change,” he said. “My hope is there will be a change soon.”
Emmet planning director Michalek said the policy has been made to protect residents who don’t necessarily want a wind turbine and he does not foresee the county planning commission or commissioners making major changes to wind energy ordinance in the near future.
The dotted line
Some of the lease agreements Balance 4 Earth has signed with residents allow the company to operate for up to 70 years on a property, with an initial six year period to be followed by a 30 year period and two 20-year extensions, at the company’s discretion. Meaning, the farm would be changed-out as technology improves or they reach they average life expectancy of about 25 years.
Bernard Keiser, 73, of Bliss Township, said he signed the lease agreement with Balance 4 Earth to help join his 15 acre lot with a 79-acre lot owned by his brother, who is in a nursing home. Bernard signed the lease agreement for $150.
“I signed because it is to the benefit to the farmers in this country who have absolutely no crops,” Keiser said. “There is a lot of farmers up here that are trying to hang onto their land, yet they don’t have any income. I signed up because I figured it would help my neighbors get an income.”
Keiser’s grandfather and great-grandfather homesteaded the land.
“My grandfather used to live in this home I’m living at. My father also lived here, then I bought it from my mother,” Keiser said. “I’m not going to make a dime and a half off the deal, but I wanted to help the community.”
In Carp Lake Township, resident Roger Warner, 70, said he leased his 80 acres for about $500 for five years,
Warner, who is retired from Procter & Gamble, raises cows on his land, but largely lives off his retirement. He and his wife signed the lease not to save their property, but rather for extra money to help them.
“It would allow us a little extra money to do more things we would like to do,” Warner said.
The Warners have lived on the property for the past 45 years and said they don’t anticipate any change in lifestyle if a turbine is built on their property in the future.
Despite the added income from a shared revenue for property owners, some caution that a wind turbine isn’t really a cash cow that is going to save farms in the long run.
“I don’t get as excited about it as much as the wind developers do,” said Michigan State University professor Steve Harsh, who specializes in agriculture and resource economics in wind. “There is no question about if you are a farmer and you suddenly get a wind turbine on your property and get $8,000 a year that is going to help you. But, probably that $8,000 – if you are not a good farmer – is not going to keep you in business.”
Harsh said the “saving the family farm” argument is often lost in the fact that you also have to be a good farmer.
“All the $8,000 really does is keep you going a little bit longer until you have to go anyway,” he said.
Future development in Emmet
Not all the developers trying to build wind turbines in the county are utility scale. For the past five months, Lake Effect Energy, of Harbor Springs, has been working with the planning commission to get a site approval to build a site-use, wind turbine at Bliss Farm and Gardens south of Cross Village. But, even the smaller turbines like the 40 kilowatt models proposed for the farm have not met the 35 decibel sound standard at the property line.
Chris Stahl, Lake Effect Energy president, estimates his company has spent about $2,400 trying get turbine plans approved through the county, not including costs billed to the property owners who hired him.
The solution? Lake Effect Energy plans to get approval from each neighbor surrounding the farm to sign on to a higher sound standard.
“In essence, we are creating our own little zoning for that lot,” said Stahl. However, Stahl says the plan is really only a “one-time” measure.
The project will also still have to get the necessary votes for recommendation by the planning commission in the future.
“If we get through this and get this system up, it will present reality and (county officials) can go out and do their research,” Stahl said.
In the meantime, Lake Effect Energy says its “breadbasket” is quickly becoming the Upper Peninsula, where it is working on a site-use wind turbine in Calumet.
Dealing with public perception and local politics is the number one challenge for the future of wind energy in Michigan.
“Developing wind energy is 70 percent about public perception and policy and 30 percent about technology,” said Arn Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University.
Boezaart said one of the biggest problems with how people discuss wind turbines is by comparing them only to other wind turbines, not the health issues facing fossil fuels and other forms of energy.
Boezaart said there are negative effects with all energy sources, including wind. But those drawbacks, he said, must be looked at next to CO2 emissions and the loss of lives related to obtaining fossil fuels.
“We have a well-documented problem with the emissions that come out of coal plants. You can’t see it or hear it, but it’s a reality,” Boezaart said, as an example.
“In the end, public officials will have to decide.”
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